CARSON CITY -- Las Vegas resident Jenifer Watkins teared up Thursday as she told a crowd that included the governor of the horrible injuries she suffered when the car in which she was sitting was hit by a pickup going 75 mph.
The pickup's driver, a 17-year-old girl who was fiddling with the radio and talking on her cellphone, received two tickets for the Jan. 18, 2004 accident. But Watkins, 28, suffered a broken pelvis and 15 other injuries. Her medical bill has topped $500,000. And she has permanent brain injuries.
"Remember you have to live with the consequences if you drive using a cellphone and hurt or kill someone," said Watkins during a news conference to publicize Nevada's new law prohibiting drivers from using hand-held cellphones and texting. "No cellphone call or text message is worth someone's life."
On Saturday, police will start enforcing the new law. For three months, they will issue verbal or written warnings advising drivers to put down their cellphones. On Jan. 1, they will start issuing tickets: $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second and $250 for the third and subsequent offenses.
"This means you will be stopped," state Department of Public Safety Director Chris Perry said.
The 457 Nevada troopers will strictly enforce the law, Perry said. Drivers should throw their cellphones in the trunk or lock them in the glove compartment to avoid the temptation of talking or texting, he said.
Nevada is the ninth state to mandate all drivers cannot use hand-held cellphones and the 34th preventing drivers from texting. National studies show it four times more risky to use a cellphone and 23 times more dangerous to text when driving than keeping both hands on the steering wheel.
Nevada had 50 highway fatalities involving distracted driving between 2006 and 2009, Perry said. While state law already allows police to cite people for distracted driving if they observe their cars moving erratically around the driving lanes, the cellphone ban is a more far-reaching tool, he said. Police only have to see a cellphone put to one's ear to issue a warning or give her or him a ticket.
Gov. Brian Sandoval said it was important for him to host the news conference because he knows the new law will save lives. The governor said he sees many people using cellphones on freeways in Las Vegas and Reno.
His 16-year-old son recently got his driver's license, Sandoval said, so he rushed out to buy him a Bluetooth headset. Bluetooth wireless devices, which start at less than $40, let motorists use their cellphones without taking their hands off the wheel.
"The bottom line it is safer for kids, safer for families to put down the cellphone when driving," Sandoval said.
Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, the law's primary sponsor, predicted lives will be saved and highways become safer as people start to accept and follow the new law. She added it is just "common sense" that people drive more safely without a cellphone at their ears.
Of seven people interviewed at restaurants and businesses near the Capitol, only one expressed opposition to the cellphone law.
Computer programmer Brian Mickey said the new law is just a "revenue generator." Most of Nevada is wide-open rural country where using a cellphone is perfectly safe, he added.
"This is just another example of the police state," he said. "Police have another reason to pull you over and see what you are doing and give you a ticket."
But Renae Rodriguez, a dental hygienist, was among those who supported the law.
"It is awesome. The fines ought to be higher," she said. "I know I cannot use a cellphone and not be distracted from driving.
Carson City lawyer Tim Terry thinks the fines are too low to induce some people to comply.
"You shouldn't need a law to handle these situations," he added. "Most laws are needed because you have to enact them to protect most of the people from the idiots running around."
Accident victim Watkins was one of those who testified for Breeden's bill during legislative hearings last spring.
Watkins, the mother of a 3-month-old baby, said Thursday she cannot work because of her injuries. Her brain injuries made it hard for her to learn things quickly. She has renewed her learners' permit four times but has not tried to get a driver's license. The accident occurred when she and her husband, Richard, had pulled off U.S. Highway 95 in Clark County to help a friend whose car had broken down.
Two other Las Vegas residents, Brian and Tina Lavoie, also attended the news conference to show their support for the cellphone law. Their 18-year-old daughter, Hillary, was killed last year when coming home from Reno. The driver was her friend, and she was talking on a cellphone. Hillary was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the car.
"It is about time Nevada stepped up and did the right thing," Tina Lavoie said. "Lives will be saved."
Contact reporter Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.